Faces of Burma 2013 Trip Report

By Don Lyon on Apr 08, 2014

“Burma has a way of changing people,” is the promise I made to the 12 photographers assembled in the lobby of the luxurious Chatrium Hotel in Yangon, Burma’s capital. That evening we visit the Schwedagon Pagoda at sunset—and they begin to understand. The great gilded dome surrounded by smaller whitewashed stupas, stands out against the cobalt blue of the sky. Tripods come out as the sun sets and the local people, along with visiting pilgrims, promenaded clockwise around the immense dome. People come to pray with offerings of flowers, young lovers meet clandestinely, and parents instruct their children in the protocol of worship. One perambulation is not enough—many of us return for a second and third visit.

Yangon is just our gateway to the interior of Burma and on the third day we fly to Heho in the northeast—land of the Shan people. Our truly amazing guide, Daniel, proudly shares his Shan homeland with us. On the shores of Lake Inle, we board three large diesel-powered cargo canoes. Entering the main body of the lake our attention turns to the unique leg-rowing fishermen of the Intha tribe. Standing on one foot at the tippy end of tiny dugout canoes they wrap the other leg around a long paddle to propel themselves across the lake. Other fisherman are setting out nets for the night or sinking large woven cone nets to catch the large fish that will be our dinner—all while standing casually on one foot. Daniel and I have been working together leading photo tours for over 17 years so he knows what we want and how to get it. Our boatmen cut their engines and paddle slowly among the fishermen as we shoot frame after frame. As the sun sets and the sky turns golden we motor toward our little paradise built on stilts over the lake—the Golden Isle Cottages. The staff, all Pa’O people, welcomes us with gongs and cymbals—a mesmerizing and haunting sound that still thrills me after more than a dozen visits.

We spend three nights here on the lake—each day filled with new adventures. Tonight there is a cultural performance including colorful traditional dancing and musical instruments as well as displays of swordsmanship and a fire dance that is fun to photograph at slow shutter speeds. Next morning leg-rowing fishermen materialize out of the mists just outside of our cabanas. After breakfast we head across the lake to a village market, photographing a monastery with ancient lacquerware Buddhas along the way. The floating gardens of the Intha are heavy with tomatoes and beans. Children leg row their way to school and wave gaily as we pass. The market is the meeting place between the lake dwelling Intha and the mountain dwelling Pa’o—each bartering for the other’s produce. After the trading, the Pa’O bathe and wash clothes in the river, tie up their yellow turbans, and trudge back up to their mountain homes. We follow, a short way, to photograph abandoned stupas, positioning the tribes people in the foreground for some storytelling images.

Late one afternoon Daniel arranges for two Intha men to model and to demonstrate their leg-rowing and fishing techniques. We shoot from the raised deck of the lodge while they glide below, holding each pose longer than we thought possible. Then we hop in our three large canoes and follow them out onto the lake for a series of beautifully choreographed scenes in evening light backlit—even more dramatically—into the setting sun. I supply our models with new Bic lighters so we can see the flame in the silhouetted images of their faces while they light each other’s cheroots—all this while standing on one foot in their dugouts!

On the lake we meet five Padong women with brass rings around their necks that have earned them the name of “giraffe-neck women”—they are pleased to pose for us and we share some of our fresh fruit. Cheroot making and silk and lotus fiber weaving are other crafts captured as we cruise around the lake. Each village on the lake has a special craft—boat building and blacksmithing are two others.

Leaving Inle Lake we drive up into even higher country—about 3,000 feet now. The soil is red and the fields are white with mustard and yellow with sesame. Lantana hedges divide the rolling hills into a well-ordered landscape that demands frequent photo stops. Our destination is the lakeside town of Pindaya—a little Shangri-La where golden domes and spires twinkle across the lake from our lodge. In the morning, as the mist rises from the warm waters, townspeople are bathing, washing clothes and filling water jugs. Giant banyan trees offer wide branches—lookout perches for the local kids who are eager to be photographed.

Above the town is a network of caves filled with 9,000 Buddha statues. I urge my group to experiment with selective focus, finding several statues at different distances and using manual focus and large apertures. Painting with light is another technique we play with. All are happy with their images—even those without tripods. A highlight this afternoon is meeting and photographing a 103-year-old Danu woman busily preparing dried chilies for storage. I will bring pictures for her and for her family when I return for the 2014 Faces of Burma trip.

After two nights at our beautiful teak-paneled lodge in Pindaya we return to Heho and fly to Mandalay, the former royal capital of Burma before the British added Burma to Victoria’s empire. From our modern city center hotel we fan out each day—quickly dropping all pretenses to being in the 21st century. Along the riverbank of the Ayerwaddy River, the famous “road to Mandalay” of Kipling’s poem, young women trudge up the beach with 60-pound loads of wet river sand—for construction projects—in baskets on their heads. The riverbank is alive with activity—mothers cook breakfast while nursing their babies, children follow the photographers hoping for a peek at their LCDs. Ceramic pots are offloaded from bamboo rafts and carried off to market—piled six high on a woman’s head. Here we climb aboard our own riverboat to cruise upriver to Mingun and the great brick ruins of what would have been the world’s largest pagoda—except for an inauspicious earthquake that halted construction. It is the perfect background for one of our many “set-ups.” Daniel persuades an elderly nun and a trio of novice monks to pose for us—complete with saffron-colored umbrellas and a “whacking white cheroot” for the nun to puff on.

Another pagoda has wave-like ridges around its perimeter—the red-robed novices happily jump from ridge to ridge for our cameras. Of course, there is time to wander and explore—naturally each person wants to make his or her own photographic discoveries. I always encourage the free spirits to wander and find their own shots but, truthfully, the set-ups Daniel and I have fine-tuned over the years are too good to miss—they’re like having professional models at every stop.

Older former capital cities lie all but abandoned around Mandalay. We visit several for the wonderfully-faded carved wooden monasteries and stucco-covered pagodas moldering under the tropic sun. At Ava, we cross a small river by ferry and ride horse carts to reach these romantic structures where monks and novices meditate and ponder their lessons derived from the Buddha’s teachings. The richly-carved doorways are subject enough, but it’s a nice touch to have a couple of red-robed novices relaxed in conversation standing in the doorway. Crossing the Ayerwaddy to Sagaing, we stop at a monastic school where nearly 200 novices, pink-robed young nuns and local kids, are educated. We arrive at recess time—it is easy to make friends and capture some charming portraits.

There is much more to photograph and experience in Mandalay but let’s move on to Bagan—the medieval capital of Burma. All that’s left from the 12th‒15th centuries are the thousands of stupas, pagodas and monasteries that were made of durable brick and stucco. The city of Bagan stands along the dusty Ayerwaddy riverbank like some vast stately pleasure dome decreed by Kubla Khan. Being here is, for me, as stirring as standing at Angkor, Luxor, Machu Picchu or any other spellbinding vision of the mysterious past that you care to mention. Stately enough on its own perhaps, but the ancient temples really come alive with a couple of novices strolling along a brick pathway, their red paper parasols backlit by the sun.

I’ve mainly described the people photo ops—this is Faces of Burma, after all—but there are also the beautiful frescos, ancient Buddha statues, colorful markets and tropical landscapes. Still, we all agreed, it was the people that made Faces of Burma a truly memorable trip. We learned so much from them and have so much to share when we return home. And that is what travel is all about.

Editor’s note: Don Lyon and Daniel will be the photo leader and country guide for the 2014 Faces of Burma Photo Safari. There are only a few spaces left!